Q2 · 2018Embracing adversity –redefine your performance limits

What makes the difference between a good, solid performer and an excellent performer? What makes the best the best?

The story of how Michelle Gisin overcame adversity to win the Gold medal at the 2018 Olympics in Alpine Combined helps to answer these questions, and has many powerful lessons for us all.

Perfect preparation

I have been Michelle’s performance psychologist for four years, helping to prepare her to compete at her best. By the time she left for the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in February, her 2017/18 season had been her best so far, with many unexpected, breathtaking achievements and a host of wonderful emotions. In that season, she had participated in 30 World Cup races, achieving 19 top ten finishes, including three podium positions.

In the run up to the Olympics, we covered every detail, not only so she could focus completely on her race tactics, but also to deal with the stress of competing in four starts at the Games, at two different event sites. The tough schedule exposed her to considerable pressure, and having to move between the two sites raised the intensity even further. So the conditions Michelle faced in the build-up to the breakneck-fast downhill run at the Olympics – the same event in which her sister Dominique won gold four years ago in Sochi – were challenging. But they were also promising – she and everyone in her coaching team felt confident that she could win a medal.

Disaster strikes

During the downhill race, however, Michelle was constantly slower than she was capable of. At one intermediate stage after another she lost a little more precious time. Each time it was not a huge amount, but it mounted up relentlessly.

Worse followed. As she approached the finish, for no obvious reason, Michelle faltered and tumbled over the line. The result: with concussion, bruising, frustration and bitter disappointment, she not only missed out on a podium finish, but slipped to 8thplace.

Michelle’s performance was clearly far from optimal. Yet, watching her race several times on TV afterwards, her tactical decisions about the line she took looked really good. How on Earth did she lose so much time?

She received the answer the same afternoon: on this particular run her skis «burned» in the snow (something that very rarely happens), so she could not get the necessary grip on the slope – and because of that, at the finish, she was even losing control.

The mark of a champion

Michelle received fantastic on-site coaching and support from her sister Dominique, who did an amazing job in guiding Michelle in general, especially also during this critical phase. I was not in Korea for the Games, but we often connected via Skype to provide additional support – and I held a call with Michelle right that day to discuss what had gone wrong. My goal was to get her to a point where she could put it behind her and find perfect focus for her last race, which was scheduled for the next morning.

As her performance psychologist my key question was, «Michelle, after everything that has happened, tell me, how would a champion deal with this?» She reflected for a couple of seconds and then replied, «A champion knows you cannot force success. You must let go of disappointments and frustrations. A champion would go through the run one more time in her mind, be tough with herself in analyzing it, and would learn from her mistakes. But then a champion would let go. She would be positive, recognizing what she did right that she should take into tomorrow’s run – her full focus would be forwards, to achieve the optimal preparation for the coming race.» To close the call, I told her, «You can do this – be a champion.»

Making history

The next day Michelle Gisin made history, winning the Gold Medal in Alpine Combined. She is the first Swiss Women ever to do so. She stormed down the mountain, leaving all the other competitors behind her, even defeating the seemingly unbeatable Michaela Shiffrin by almost one second. Despite all the obstacles, Michelle overcame adversity and proved to herself and the world that she is not only a winner, but a true champion.

What can business leaders learn from Michelle?

We all have our goals and dreams, but at times it seems almost impossible to achieve them. Problems that we didn’t anticipate are thrown in our path and we are exposed to huge challenges. The right mind-set for us to adopt – as Michelle did – is not to try to avoid adversity, but to embrace it. By facing up to our problems, learning from them and, above all, moving positively forward from them, we will ultimately transform our performance to the next level.

Michelle’s win teaches us:

  • You cannot force success
  • Be tough with yourself in analyzing failure – and learn from it
  • Disconnect – let go of disappointments and move forward
  • Gather your energy and focus positively on preparing for your next challenge
  • Embrace adversity as something that can help you be the best you can

Fractions make all the difference

Sometimes it is only fractions that distinguish the excellent performers from the good performers. The reasons for fractions are often not visible to others. It could be burnt skis. Or it could be the positive mindset of a true champion – a mindset that embraces adversity.

You can adopt this mindset too – and be a champion in your chosen field.